A Probing Conclusion to Barenboim’s Bruckner Series in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart and Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.4.2012 (MB)

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482
Bruckner – Symphony no.9 in D minor

There is nothing routine about Daniel Barenboim’s music-making; it might vary, it might sometimes even disappoint, but predictable it is not. And so, the swift tempo at which he took the first movement of Mozart’s Twenty-second Piano Concerto surprised and yet convinced, drawing out, albeit without undue exaggeration, the martial tendencies in Mozart’s writing. Not that this was a harsh account, delectable woodwind from the opening tutti onwards ensuring that, yet it was noticeable that the piano entry was less melting, more forthright, than one might have expected from either of Barenboim’s recordings of the work. This was perhaps a more Beethovenian approach than would generally be the case, but also an approach with fire in its belly, echoing Furtwängler’s way with Mozart. There was occasional heavy-handedness, and some passage-work was skated over. However, the necessary structural dynamism was conveyed, never more so than in the lead in to the recapitulation, kettledrums pointing the way. Barenboim played his own cadenza, with splendidly free Romanticism.

The slow movement opened in darkly Romantic fashion, as veiled as the priestly passages of The Magic Flute. Above all, it sang. Harmoniemusik and the interplay between minor and major modes were as well handled as one would expect from a conductor experienced and successful in Mozart’s operas. (Oddly, Barenboim has never conducted The Magic Flute.) Occasionally, I wished for a little more relaxation, for this was again, perhaps surprisingly, a tempo at which even the ‘authenticke’ brigade could hardly cavil (though that of course does not mean that its regiments would not do so), but it was sustained with conviction. And all the while, Mozart’s harmony and Barenboim’s understanding of its ways reminded us just how close to Schoenberg we stand. Infallible in execution this was not, and in Mozart one cannot fail to notice such things, but Barenboim’s performance was possessed of something more important, and far rarer, namely Mozartian spirit. As in the first movement, the hunting finale sometimes experienced a little heavy-handedness, but it went for relatively little; we were well compensated by a properly goal-oriented journey through Mozart’s garden of delights. Harmonic rhythm is at least as crucial to success here as it is in Bruckner; Barenboim undoubtedly understands that. The central Andantino section was ravishingly beautiful, whether from the piano or the Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind. Quite rightly, it looked forward to Così fan tutte. Barenboim’s ornamentation was properly vocal in manner too. As he has often done, he used his own abridgement of Edwin Fischer’s cadenza, the transition at its end a thing of rare beauty. The sense of return at the concerto’s conclusion was impressive, fulfilling, indeed.

I was a little puzzled by the opening to the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Though the strings proved wonderfully atmospheric, allaBeethoven’s Ninth and/or Furtwängler’s Beethoven and Bruckner, there was a curious lack of mystery to the prosaic brass. However, very soon, that was forgotten in an extraordinary build-up of apparently fragmentary material into that first, awe-inspiring great statement. Now, it became clear, this was to be modernist Bruckner, poised at the very least on the threshold of the twentieth century. The second theme’s contrasting lyricism, when it came, had something intriguingly false about its attempts toward reconciliation. Adorno would surely have approved – and Boulez too, I think. But that was not all, for a Wagnerian musico-dramatic sensibility was also thrown into the mix; if that sounds haphazard, I apologise, for the fusion or dialectic worked, and that dialectic was to be the story of this movement, a riveting story too. Schubertian ghosts: did I mention them? Well, I have now, and not only did they haunt the feast; they danced at it. The defiance of the coda certainly echoed Furtwängler, albeit strangely foreshortened. Was that a deliberate (modernist?) strategy? I was unsure, but found myself asking whether Romantic gestures had somehow lost their purchase, whether in the performance or in the work itself. Or perhaps it was a matter of saving the truer defiance for the scherzo, precariously poised between mechanistic (prophetic?) horror and an attempt to look back towards vanished – if ever it existed – rusticity. If at times it were untidy, the sense of struggle remained, as did the equally crucial sense of strangeness.

The finale’s first bars showed Barenboim alert not only to kinship with Wagner, which goes considerably beyond the Dresden Amen, but also to relatively rare premonitions of Mahler, and late Mahler at that. Parsifal is of course held in common here. Again, however, there was more to it: a contest between opposing forces, whether Wagnerian musico-dramatic tendencies and Brucknerian architectonics, or harmonic motion and harmonic disintegration. Something akin to Furtwängler’s mysticism – whether that he found in Bruckner, or that Menuhin found in Furtwängler – was potentially something of a unifying force, but perhaps not quite enough, and if I have a criticism, it is that Barenboim might have attempted more, even if doomed to failure. However, if the outcome of the various battles was uncertain, is that not perhaps how it should be? We found ourselves lulled at the close, but lulled into what? One sensed the truth of Schoenberg’s observation that Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler had not been permitted to write tenth symphonies because they would have revealed more of the ultimate truth than it was given to man to know. This was probing heroism, far from perfect, but then that lies in the very nature of heroism.

Mark Berry